Summer holidays: down time or down to it?

January 16, 2017 1:30 am
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For some students, the long school holidays are a time to do little thinking and a lot of playing but some parents worry their academic achievement will slide.

With the six-week summer holiday soon upon us, students across Victoria are winding down for the break. Text books and spelling lists are being swapped for bathers and sunscreen.

But what balance should children strike over the summer? Is it a time for play, relaxation and recharging of batteries or should children be keeping up the academic practice to maintain the often painstaking gains they’ve made in the classroom?

“Enjoy the summer,” says Kevin Mackay, principal of Dandenong North Primary School in Melbourne’s south-east. “It’s a renewal time for neurological pathways so you get accelerated learning when students come back.

“Play is very important. It’s just as important as academic learning.”

However, he also stresses that reading over the summer is a “fantastic activity”. “It’s new learning and entertainment.”

Deborah Patterson, principal of Mill Park Heights Primary School in Melbourne’s north, has 1000 children in her care. She believes that the summer break, and the breaks through the year, are important. But she too stresses reading. “Most definitely read with your children over the holidays,” she says.

In some countries, the term “summer slide” has become a well-used phrase. Research in the United States, and more recently in New Zealand, has shown students’ academic achievements reportedly slipping over summer. Research by Tom Nicholson, professor of literacy education at Massey University in Auckland, has shown that some students’ reading can drop a massive six months over the summer break. His research, and that done in the US, suggests the drop is much more significant for low socioeconomic status (SES) students, whereas higher SES students stay steady or gain ground over the summer.

Whether such a phenomenon exists in Australia is unclear. A spokesman for the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development noted that the department looked into the concept of summer learning loss in 2012 and “found it is not a concern in Victoria”. John Hattie, director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, also questions the whole notion of a summer slump.

But not all agree. Rhonda Craven, director of the Australian Catholic University’s Institute for Positive Psychology and Education (IPPE), explains that “the summer slide in Australia does exist”.

Catherine Scott, senior lecturer in education and cognitive psychology at the University of Melbourne, adds that, “It seems unlikely that there is something in Australia making us immune to the laws of human behaviour. There is a well-known phenomenon of memory decay. Particularly when you first learn something, you have to practise it fairly regularly or the ability to retrieve it gets worse. If you are not using it every day, your brain makes a decision for those connections to weaken.” She says the six weeks of the summer holidays are certainly enough time to see a phenomenon such as summer slide.

It’s something noticed in the classroom by Mrs Patterson and Mr Mackay. “There is a slight regression for a whole variety of reasons,” says Mrs Patterson, adding that the slide is considerably less than six months. “They are not in their daily routine of home reading. But it’s quite normal and they usually pick up quite quickly.”

In New Zealand, Dr Nicholson pioneered a scheme to gift students 25 books over the summer. “It was a really good intervention,” he says. “It seemed to have a pretty strong effect for the lower SES students who either stayed steady or moved up.”

“I’d say read,” is Professor Nicholson’s advice to parents for the summer. He says parents should get students to read to them and to discuss what they have read. “That makes a really great difference,” he says.

Researchers at ACU’s IPPE are considering a similar research project in Australia, giving students access to e-books over the summer. They are seeking sponsors but, in the meantime, Professor Craven says: “Just because school’s over, it doesn’t mean reading should stop. I would encourage primary and secondary children to engage in reading.

“Consider beautiful books as presents for Christmas. There are plenty of e-books that aren’t expensive that parents can purchase that make great Christmas presents.”

So beyond reading over summer and visiting the library, what other advice do those in the know have for children and their families?

Mrs Patterson advises parents to take the time to talk with their children and spend one on one time. “Ask them what they did today,” she suggests. “Get them to write down what they did.” She suggests students who become good at articulating what they do, will be able to write it down better.

She is cautious about online tools, such as StudyLadder, Mathletics and Reading Eggs. “They are OK,” she says. “But they are not the be all and end all. It’s all about interaction with other people.”

Dr Scott advises parents to use maths in everyday situations over the holidays, for example, when you are going shopping.

David Rothstadt, principal of Noble Park Primary in Melbourne’s south east, would keep children away from all tutoring, including online tools such as Mathletics. “The most important work for a child is play,” he explains. “Talk to your children. Definitely read. Where parents are able to, go out to lovely places like the zoo, parks, the beach. They can be your educational, teachable moments.”

A spokesman for the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development adds that “travel, trips to country, city and coast, and visits to museums, libraries and galleries can be hugely beneficial to a child’s development”.

By: Julia Proctor, The Age